A civil engineer by trade, Flowery Branch’s Tara Richards “did everything from building runways to fixing toilets” during her six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
“It was a very rewarding trip. I learned a lot,” she said during an interview this week. “I certainly got to experience a lot of different things.”
Richards, a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, not only returned this week to family and friends but also to city government. The wife and mother of two also is a Flowery Branch city councilwoman.
She took her Post 5 seat at Thursday night’s council meeting, with fellow council members showering well wishes on her. A reception was held afterward at the Historic Depot a few doors down from City Hall.
“She’s a neighbor and a friend and we’ve been worried about her,” said Mayor Mike Miller.
“You hear the news stories of things happening in Afghanistan and, you know, you get worried and check the news to find out if it’s that loved one that we have. She’s a part of the family here at Flowery Branch, so it’s always a concern.”
And Richards said she’s happy to be back on the council, but said it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the attention and support.
“I don’t enjoy being in the limelight, so it’s been a little bit overwhelming,” she said. “I came to the city earlier in the day to catch up and get up to speed with everything so nothing was a surprise. It’s very nice to be back and have everything be so stable.”
Miller said now that Richards is back, the council will have some continuity — something it’s been missing since 2010.
“Ever since my tenure on the council, since January 2010, it’s been like a rotating council,” said Miller.
“There’s always been people leaving and coming, so it’s nice to have a stable council until at least Dec. 31, 2013. So we’ll have a year-and-a-half of a good, stable council that gets along, works together, comes to council meetings prepared, does their research and you can see that by the smoothness of the meetings and how we get through things.”
In the middle of her first four-year term on the council, Richards was called to deployment as part of the 628th Civil Engineer Flight at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta.
She went through extensive training, including learning how to fire an M4 carbine and M9 semiautomatic pistol.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Richards picked her words carefully as she spoke about her work, much of which is classified.
“I filled in wherever I needed to be. (There was) a lot of facility maintenance, trying to keep buildings up and operational and systems working.”
And there were tense times, but she couldn’t elaborate.
“There were definitely situations where I was scared,” Richards said.
She said she did help unload injured U.S. military personnel from aircraft and carry them into the operating room, then put the wounded back on aircraft headed to Germany.
“I got to see daily battlefield injuries, so that part of (the deployment) was very real,” Richards said.
She got plenty of love from the homefront, receiving care packages from home, the city and her workplace, engineering firm Rochester & Associates in Gainesville.
“That part was really great,” Richards said. “And depending on where I was, if I had an Internet signal, I could talk to the kids and (husband) Michael. Most of the time, we would (talk) on the weekends because of the time difference.”
As far as city matters, “I exchanged emails with the city and the mayor (Mike Miller).”
And she was able to keep up with agendas and meeting minutes “to see what was voted on and how it was voted on, and that sort of thing.
She hasn’t given city business much thought beyond that.
“When you deploy, it’s almost like an alternate reality,” Richards said. “We worked 14 to 16-hour days and we worked every day. We had no day off. The only chance you had to get away from anything was when you went to sleep.
“It was so intense ... so you didn’t really have time to think about other things.”
She did say that if a prickly issue of some sort arose in the city, Miller “would give me the details of what was going on,” Richards said.
But there hasn’t been much controversy lately, a reverse in trend for a council that had been long known for division and friction among its members.
“It’s wonderful. I’m very excited and going back and serving on a council that’s very stable and seems to be very effective,” Richards said.
Staff writer Lee Johnson contributed to this report.